Michael KreponWhich President Was Best for Arms Control?

Quote of the week:

“Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” — Bobby Unser

When it comes to arms control, presidents are hamstrung or empowered by historical context. It also helps to be a Republican because Republican presidents have far more leeway than Democrats when it comes to the pursuit of arms control. The more a Democratic president comes into office with grand plans (think Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama), the more suspect he becomes as a defender of national security and the more he becomes a target for the guardians of deterrence orthodoxy. 

Ronald Reagan was almost completely immune to this syndrome because he was a staunch anti-communist. Very few people knew that he was also an ardent abolitionist until his Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev..  

The best Secretaries of State for arms control – in my book, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control, that would be George Shultz and James Baker – operated on the premise that if you want something more than the other guy, you are likely to be out-negotiated. Shultz and Baker were, however, quite able and ready to seize opportunities. Both secured great deals.

Democratic presidents are usually granted one bite of the treaty ratification apple by skeptical Republican Senators. Jimmy Carter succeeded with the Panama Canal transfer but faced an uphill climb on SALT II ratification even before Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan to keep it in the red column.

Bill Clinton and his team had to work ridiculously hard to secure the Senate’s consent to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention negotiated during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Then he got his you-know-what handed to him when seeking ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Senate Republicans put Obama through the wringer getting New START ratified – not just to extract pledges of more money for strategic modernization programs, but also to clarify not to draw from this well a second time.

Richard Nixon went directly to Capitol Hill after signing the SALT I accords in Moscow, claiming monumental achievement during an election year. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty sailed through the Senate with just two votes opposed. (By comparison, five Senators voted against Reagan’s INF Treaty.)

Nixon and Kissinger deserve high marks for the ABM Treaty, which established one condition for successful strategic arms control and reductions. They were deeply ambivalent about their accomplishment, preferring more locations for interceptor missiles than technology and domestic politics allowed, and that the Pentagon was willing to invest in.

The companion agreement to the ABM Treaty — the 1972 “Interim” Agreement — was both pathbreaking and woefully deficient. It’s porousness – at the insistence of the Pentagon and the Soviet General Staff – ensured an intensification of the arms race and blowback against Nixon and Kissinger’s handiwork. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter tried to cap strategic offensive forces, but given Nixon and Kissinger’s decision to let MIRVs run free in the Interim Agreement, they could do so only at highly unsatisfactory levels. Neither president could close the deal.

John F. Kennedy deserves kudos for the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty (nineteen Senators in opposition) ending U.S., Russian, and British atmospheric testing. Treaty making with the Soviet Union was highly unnatural back then, and a comprehensive test ban wasn’t in the cards. Lyndon Baines Johnson outperformed Kennedy on this front, as on others, overseeing the negotiation of the Outer Space Treaty and the negotiation of the Nonproliferation Treaty.

The highest marks for arms control accomplishment go to presidents who made the most of opportunities that presented themselves immediately before and after the Cold War ended. Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev broke the back of the nuclear arms competition with the INF Treaty. Figuring out Reagan’s role is a story that has yet to be told in full — or rather a story that will likely change over time. My assessment is that Reagan might have been an innocent, but he wasn’t a bystander: He was critical to this success story.

Bill Clinton, with an immense assist from William Perry at the Pentagon, helped prevent “loose nukes” and “dirty” bombs after the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union dissolved. His administration also succeeded in indefinitely extending the NPT and completing negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. 

The most successful president in this sphere was, by far, George H.W. Bush. No president had greater opportunities to succeed, and no president made the most of his opportunities. Bush 41 completed negotiations on the Chemical Weapons Convention and START II, which would have prohibited land-based missiles carrying MIRVs, just before passing the baton to Clinton. He denuclearized the U.S. Army and the surface Navy by presidential initiative.

Bush presided over negotiations vastly reducing conventional arms. He revived and made a reality of Dwight Eisenhower’s proposed Open Skies Treaty, and he secured fifty per cent reductions in strategic offensive forces in the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Not bad for government work.

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